Guillermo del Toro: ‘Nightmare Alley’

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Director Guillermo del Toro. Photo by Kerry Hayes

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro, whose latest film is an adaption of the novel “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham. Del Toro’s 2017 film “The Shape of Water” won Oscars for both Best Director and Best Picture. Del Toro tells The Treatment about the recurring theme of monsters in human form in his films. He discusses how dreams and nightmares weave their way into the storytelling of “Nightmare Alley.” And he talks about how cell phones and the internet have made it difficult for him to set his films in the present day.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro, and his new film as director and co-writer is the adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's classic novel "Nightmare Alley." I think it's funny because I'm sure people are telling you, this is a departure for you. But for me, I think of it basically as another monster movie.

Guillermo del Toro: It's actually a confirmation of everything I've been doing so far, which has repeated over and over again in every movie: the real monsters are the humans. And this just confirms that visually and narratively. The movie has so many strange connections with the rest of my filmography, but what is great for me, I've been a noir literature and film fan. For a minute or two, my first movie was not "Cronos," maybe, but an adaptation of a Mexican noir called, "There Will Be No Happy Ending," which was a great novel. I've been pursuing this possibility, and it became real and possible after "Shape of Water." 

KCRW: There's a great line from the book that really describes your kind of ethos of making films and certainly describes the character Stan played by Bradley Cooper so well: "Fear, find out what they're afraid of, and sell it back to them."

Del Toro: Yes. And in fact, that's key not only to the character and the way Bradley brilliantly went at it, but it's a perfect summation of the way William Lindsay Gresham, the author of the book, saw society and the way that the American dream gets rigged, and the way people live their lives in fear. It became such a strong element because it's also an element that pushes and compresses addiction in the character. 

Kim Morgan, my co-writer, and partner in crime, made it very clear when we were starting. She said, Look, this is not just about the grip, it's about him taking on the drink that comes from his inheritance from his father. And fear is the key. I think that is vital in noir: characters that are desperate and afraid or suppressed or negated by the rigging of the game of society.

KCRW: We've talked on this show about the real monster being pride. And for Stan, it's about this descent and this fear that he will become this thing that we see at the beginning of the movie. And so often the movies that you've done that we've talked about, the idea of something feeding on fear is really key to the conception, isn't it?

Del Toro: The Tao says something beautiful. It says something like, beware of saying something is good because something bad has to be born out of that. And I think the American dream engenders through fear the American nightmare, which is: the notion of failure is terrifying, because there exists the notion of success. It's a hollow notion that signifies really that a lot of people are empty or will never have enough, and Stanton never has enough. He gets a happy ending in the middle of the movie by leaving the carnival with the girl, the things he wanted. The book, the coat, the possibility of elevating himself, and I do a crane that signifies a happy ending. Then we cut by ellipses and two years later, he's unhappy. It's a very interesting character, and our hope was at the end of the process of the movie, we did a good character portrait that even if you approve or disapprove, you understand him.

KCRW: There's this thing that I've come to associate with you: it's really about heartbreak. And so much of the things you've done are people wanting this one thing more than anything, and what getting that one thing will or won't do for them. 

Del Toro: Normally I have this wistful, melancholic sense of poetry or loss that is absent in this movie. This movie goes for two things in the ending: a release, and a gut punch. And at the same time the character gets crushed, beautifully minutely newly acted by Bradley Cooper, you see also a sense of liberation; he can finally be himself. And those colors mix beautifully and in a very difficult moment to pull off. 

KCRW: The thing that you get to do here that you touch on often in your movies is melodrama, which I know you have a real appetite for.

Del Toro: One thing we knew is we wanted the scale and the lush feeling of the movie to almost act like a balancing act, with the drama of it all. I love melodrama, but melodrama that also hints at tragedy. The beauty of noir as a genre is that the downfall in any noir movie is inexorable. As the Greeks knew in tragedy, the ending will be quite brutal, and that inexorable feeling is punctuated by wrong decisions of the characters taken in front of the camera in front of your eyes. 

We wrote it in part like little plays. For example, the interactions with Lilith Ritter, played like Cate Blanchett in a beautiful duet with Bradley Cooper. Those interactions are almost one act little plays. We basked in the movement of the actors and the camera, the rhythm of the dialogue, notions and values that belong more in a '40s movie, but with a contemporary feel. We have the sexuality, the danger, the violence, the thematic idea of truth and lies, and how we fall for them out of our own will, which is very much alive in today's thematic thread for me that connects the movie into being a movie about today.

KCRW: The thing that makes all your movies feel really contemporary to me is they're about how characters deal with fear. And the fear here comes from a classic kind of noir setting, which is that all people can see is what's right in front of them. And it's also something that you come back to again and again: the characters who are going to have the biggest downfalls are people who can only see what's directly in front of them, so specifically goal oriented that that will lead to their downfall. And you made a movie here filled with people like that.

Del Toro: The first encounter with Lilith is so beautiful because he thinks that she is a mark, and he thinks he is in charge in that scene. And upon a second viewing of the movie, you clearly see the dramaturgy. The construction of that scene is so minute. She says, I'm a mark and what do I want? And he says, to be found out like everybody else. And in reality, he's telling her, he wants to be found out. And everything he says in that scene she uses against him. But he is a character of hubris, and a character of ambition because he's hollow. 

There is a great line by Pete, which is David Straitharn's character. He says, “if you're good at reading people it's because they cracked you when you were a kid. And if they did a real number on you, then that crack is a hollow, and you'll never have enough.” And all these things are seeding the destiny of Stan. 

We jokingly call it a Jungian drama, because we use a lot of sort of nightmare images, and Jungian images and symbols. Even the fact that the character keeps waking up in the movie, he wakes up into a new reality. Every now and then he wakes up into the carnival; he wakes up and he's in a luxury apartment, he wakes up and he's dispossessed of everything. We don't see those transitions. We bet on that, and the fact that the camera and the design work of the movie is sort of dreamlike, both in the carnival and in the city is a little heightened. It feels real, but at the same time it feels magical, or more than reality. So I think those things feed into the parable and the slight dark fairytale aspects of the story.

KCRW: You see what Bradley Cooper’s strengths are: he's a leading man, but he works best in an ensemble. And this is a movie that's really as full of characters as any movie you've ever made. You take us inside these worlds that we live in these communities. And I just wondered if the appeal of "Nightmare Alley" was partially because it gave you the opportunity to do that.

Del Toro: The attraction I have for a carnival I have had since I was a child. I saw a carnival when I was about six or seven, where the Spider Woman that appears in the film was the main attraction, and I was so scared. And obviously I'm incredibly taken almost like a gospel level by Tod Browning's "Freaks."

The carnival is not presented in an idealized loving version. It's a brutal place. The first thing Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli and Willem Dafoe do is take out 25 cents from the salary of the character of Stanton. They're ruthless, and Clem, the character played by Willem Dafoe, is so absolutely frontal about being a bastard, and an exploiter and a destroyer of lives. But he is a leader in the community of the carnies and the carnies know. They're very honest about being dishonest whereas in the city, the dishonesty is behind the facade of respectability and wealth. I wanted very much: can we inhabit both worlds?

KCRW: That first third of the movie, it feels almost like Stan is a kid who thinks he knows things and walks into the world realizing he doesn't know anything. But the explosion of pride in the second act where he can't help but become braggadocious and act like he basically does have all the information in his disposal. Again, it's that short sightedness of not being able to see past what you want.

Del Toro: Bradley Cooper lost 15 pounds to play the first part of Stan. He looks younger, leaner, hungrier. I don't know how he does it honestly; he looks innocent at certain moments, and he is not an innocent character. He has committed a crime at the very least. And he comes from a tough life. But he gives him an almost childlike hunger to find something in life that defines him, and he finds it. And then we do a very symbolic thing, which is we lose the color red. Once he goes into that route, he starts losing life, and the only sign of the red at the Carnival is Molly, played by Rooney Mara, who remains the only red character in the movie in the second half. Stanton then becomes incredibly arrogant, but ultimately, still unsophisticated. He's still trying to do a carnival grift in the city environment that is an environment of sharks.

I think those turns are very much expected. We're not trying to surprise the audience. The ending to us, is not what happens to Stanton, but how he receives it. We also start shooting Stanton in the dark. He speaks his first lines in the shadows. Oftentimes, some of his most crucial moments are on his back. We don't see his face. And this was a deliberate choice because by then we hope the audience knows enough that they know what he's thinking. And he's always thinking about swindling.

KCRW: You've done so many movies that are set in the past. And it's almost crucial for you in narrative terms, or I should say emotional narrative terms, to set these movies in an era when people knew themselves less well.

Del Toro: Yes, I have done movies set in the past or in the future. I'm very uncomfortable with the present because I think it's a time right now, where we exist partially in another land that is sort of transhumanist between our phone and the net, and the immediacy of information. I feel that a lot of our emotions are less immediate and less discernible. In narrative terms, I'm more comfortable in the future or in the past. It's when the weight of the moments really land in a genuine way. Oftentimes, a third or a fourth or more of our day is spent in a virtual arena. The phone is now quite literally an extension of yourself. And it's very hard for me to believably set up a dinner scene where somebody is not checking a phone. It becomes a fabrication. But in the past and in the future I can.

KCRW: Is there a black and white version of the film that you've got coming up?

Del Toro: Yes, it's happening right now in New York and Los Angeles. It's in several theaters in LA. The movie was designed to be lit with three point lighting, the classical studio lighting, and the camera moves in a very, very classical way. There is not a single static shot in the movie. It's always on a crane, on a dolly, on a mini crane, on a Steadicam, but it's very subtle. It's very much the way shots were orchestrated in the ‘40s. 

KCRW: It felt to me in thematic terms like fate was constantly circling Stanton. There was nothing finally that he could hide from fate, from destiny.

Del Toro: The idea was that the movie is inexorably moving in a very cinematic way, but inexorably moving towards the end. And the camera stops only at the end in that close up. I just thought the camera needs to feel like a character that is watching a young Stanton trying to look over the shoulders of everything. The movie is built very purposefully like a circle. And you could perfectly join the ending with the beginning and start over again, meaning in the last scene, he remembers what he did. And the movie starts over. And it's a perfect circle. So the part of this dreamlike quality was the camera being "curious" about everything, and peeking over characters' shoulders, coming closer, moving away. And for the first 20 minutes of the movie, the camera becomes the dialogue, the internal monologue of Stanton. 

KCRW: The work you've done so often as a storyteller is setting these stories in communities. Even though there's a core melancholy because these characters have made themselves loners, they forced this kind of choice on themselves when they're surrounded by people. 

Del Toro: Yeah. The loneliness of this character and the fear of this character connect directly with Michael [Shannon's] character in "The Shape of Water." I mean, they could be twin souls. It connects with the captain, it connects with Jacinto, in "Devil's Backbone," and so on and so forth. And it is because I think they force themselves into a destiny that is lonely and full of fear. That is why I personally have compassion and empathy for Stan because I understand why he did it. I understand why he made every decision in the movie. The way we withhold violence until the final act of the movie, we really support that idea of the ramp, where the violence becomes the consequences of his acts. They come swiftly and consecutively, in what I think is a phenomenal last half hour.

KCRW: The original is probably the only great performance Tyrone Power ever gave. And certainly Bradley steps up here in a way that really proves his mettle. It's one of these things about this particularly peculiar American pursuit of success as fame, and actors in a studio system have maybe an almost intuitive understanding of that in a way that many others of us don't.

Del Toro: I think everybody that is in a social media environment and has "followers" and even the language of that is very loaded. The notion of fame that started with reality TV was a direct line with tabloid fame that has become such an empty calorie sugar rush that is as addictive, particularly in the digital form as substance abuse. 

Bradley Cooper, I must say, has never been as spiritually naked as he is in this movie. I think he went to really, really dark places to challenge himself to keep everything real. That's the thing he did for me. At age 57, I found myself watching pure reality from that guy. And he revealed to me Stan from reality every day. Every day I would see Stan, and it would be discoveries on the set, an idea that came out of being there. He did something remarkable. He was always on the set, watching the other actors feeling the reality. He didn't go to a trailer or make a phone call or take a shower or go rest. Even in the slight moments where he was not needed, he would be there, and ideas would come out of that. For example we had originally, he would go and look at the geek, and then he said in a crucial moment, What if I offered him a puff of my cigarette? That makes the mirror moment a lot more profound, because he's being kind to basically himself. It was such a beautiful idea, and it's in the movie.



Rebecca Mooney